Mussina one step away from 20

Mussina has his sights on win No. 20

BOSTON -- On the eve of what could be not only Mike Mussina's last chance to post a 20-victory season, but also possibly his final start for the Yankees, there was an insistence that it all would mean more to everyone else but the pitcher himself.

"It's a significant number, but after playing this long and winning all these games, if I don't win [Sunday], then has it been bad?" Mussina said. "Has it been lousy, unsuccessful? No -- 18 seasons and 269 wins now.

"Am I going to be disappointed in what I've done for all these years? No -- there's a lot of things you can't control. Winning baseball games is not easy."

Mussina said that it does not bother him to be the owner of 269 Major League wins, more than any other pitcher in baseball history without a 20-win season.

But one day before Mussina would bid to become the fourth Major League pitcher to hit the 20-victory mark this season, potentially joining Cleveland's Cliff Lee (22), Arizona's Brandon Webb (22) and Toronto's Roy Halladay (20), even he had to admit, "It'd be a lot of fun to win it."

The entire season has given Mussina, in the midst of a renaissance campaign at age 39, plenty to be satisfied with. Healthy enough to take the ball for each of his 33 starts to date, Mussina enters Sunday's day-night doubleheader with the Red Sox boasting a 19-9 record with a 3.47 ERA.

He would become the first pitcher to win a 20th game at age 39 or later since Jamie Moyer did it in 2003 for the Mariners, and only the eighth all time, joining Pete Alexander (1927), Moyer, Phil Niekro ('79), Gaylord Perry ('78), Eddie Plank (1915), Warren Spahn (1960, '61, '63), Early Wynn ('59) and Cy Young (1907, '08).

Of those pitchers, only Mussina would be doing it for the first time in his career. Moyer -- who was linked to Mussina earlier in April, when Yankees co-chairman Hank Steinbrenner suggested that the 1-3 Mussina "pitch more like Jamie Moyer" -- is rooting for Mussina to beat the Red Sox.

"To see where he's come full circle, I tip my hat to him," Moyer said. "To me, that just shows the kind of person he is and the kind of perseverance that he's had. For him, you can't write the script any better."

Yet Mussina has visited this neighborhood already. After winning 19 games in back-to-back seasons for the Orioles in 1995-96, Mussina simply assumed that he'd have another chance before very long to make the 20-win season eventually happen.

Twenty-game winners after age of 39
If Mike Mussina is able to secure his 20th victory on Sunday, he would become the oldest pitcher to do so since Jamie Moyer won 21 games at age 40 for the 2003 Mariners, and he would also be the oldest first-time 20-game winner. Only eight pitchers have won 20 games after their 39th birthday.
Jamie MoyerSEA2003
Phil Niekro ATL1979
Gaylord PerrySD1978
Warren Spahn MIL 1960, '61, '63
Early WynnCWS1959
Pete AlexanderSTL 1927
Eddie PlankSTL 1915
Cy YoungBOS1907, '08

"I just kind of thought I was going to get a couple of more shots at it," Mussina said. "Twelve years later, it hasn't."

And while that hasn't kept him up late at night, those opportunities have moved farther into the rearview mirror. Before what may be his last chance to add an impressive line to a resume up for Hall of Fame consideration, Mussina was left to think back to his last opportunity to win a 20th game.

That season, Mussina had locked in his 19th victory with four starts left to make, beating the Tigers on Sept. 7 at Camden Yards. But Mussina took back-to-back losses to the White Sox and Yankees, and he had an ugly no-decision against the Brewers to bring him to his last start of the season, a Sept. 28 assignment in Toronto.

Mussina was brilliant that day, limiting the Blue Jays to one run on four hits over eight innings before entrusting a 2-1 lead to Baltimore closer Armando Benitez.

The hard-throwing Benitez struck out Joe Carter looking for the first out, but Ed Sprague belted a deep drive over the left-field wall, tying the game and crushing Mussina's chance. That moment was why Mussina, sitting at his locker on Saturday in the cramped Fenway Park clubhouse, couldn't get amped up with 24 hours to go.

"I've been a lot closer," Mussina said. "I've been three outs away. I've had other chances to do it. At this point, until the last out [Sunday], I've been closer than this."

"I think it's important to our guys on the club. I think they understand what a great career Moose has had and this is one of the things that he's never accomplished. It would be great to assist him in getting that."
-- Manager Joe Girardi, on Mike Mussina

Yankees manager Joe Girardi expects to play his regular starting lineup in support of Mussina's bid, with the exception of shortstop Derek Jeter, who will sit with a sore left hand. Cody Ransom will start instead for New York, a move that had Jeter's blessing.

"I wouldn't want to be the last person to go out there and mess it up for him," Jeter said.

"I think it's important to our guys on the club," Girardi said. "I think they understand what a great career Moose has had, and this is one of the things that he's never accomplished. It would be great to assist him in getting that."

Adding another dimension to the start is that it could possibly be Mussina's final one in a Yankees uniform. He is a free agent after the season and, while the Bronx Bombers are his first choice if he continues to pitch, there are no guarantees that the organization will bring him back.

That, too, is a situation that Mussina has faced before, making his final start for the Orioles in 2000 knowing that there was a chance he'd never be in that uniform again.

"I realized that leaving Baltimore, that there was a chance things could be different a couple of months from now," Mussina said. "It's been great. I've enjoyed pitching in New York. I've been really lucky to go out there and stay healthy and pitch on good teams and get to the World Series a couple of times. It's been great."

Mussina has shared some thoughts with Girardi about the possibility of pitching next season, and he has said that pitching on a year-to-year basis would probably be preferred.

"This year has been so easy, as far as health and going out there and having fun pitching," Mussina said. "The months are just flying by. You have to sit down and remember that at 40 years old, things aren't going to be getting better. They're going to be getting tougher. Then you have to decide if that's a challenge you want to face."

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.